Attorney General Eric Holder announced a substantial shift in federal asset forfeiture policy, largely eliminating a program that encouraged police to seize the money and goods of people even if they weren’t accused of any crimes.
Under a Department of Justice program called “equitable sharing,” state and local police were able to seize money and property from people if they thought it was connected with the drug trade or other illegal activities, even if the holders of the property were not suspected of any crimes. They could then have these seizures “adopted” by the federal government, which would then let police departments keep most of the proceeds.
In order to reclaim their property, the original owners had to prove to a court that it wasn’t involved with criminal activities.
The program was a favorite of police departments because it often allowed them to evade tougher state-level asset forfeiture laws, and made it easier for seized assets to primarily remain with the departments themselves. Many state-level laws send all seizures into a state’s general fund in order to discourage corruption.
The federal system, in contrast, was sharply criticized for allowing police to directly profit from their seizures, thereby encouraging them to take property on dubious grounds, and then use the proceeds to purchase weapons, vehicles and even leisure items. Regardless of criticism, the practice was very popular, with a lengthy Washington Post investigative series estimating that total asset seizures since 9/11 totaled over $2.5 billion.
Now, Holder says, equitable sharing will largely come to an end.
“Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately,” said Holder in a statement. “This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties.”
Holder also said the program is no longer necessary, because when it was established few states had their own asset forfeiture laws, but now all of them do.
Equitable sharing had come under increasing criticism from politicians. Just last week, a bipartisan group of four members of Congress sent Holder a letter urging him to end the practice.
The new policy has a few exceptions, including money seized during child pornography investigations and illegal weapons, but those categories are tiny compared to the huge volume of cash and cars currently seized, primarily through drug investigations.
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